Help Me Out, People

It’s now six months since Black Light came out, and I’ve had a handful of reviews, mostly good, but things seem to have petered out now. I’m not getting nearly the buzz I got with The City of Love. Perhaps it’s because the launch was not well attended, so I’m doing another event for the book at Oxford, probably on Saturday 2 April.

This silence is a bit mysterious since I thought that Black Light was a more accessible book than City of Love: it’s set (mostly) in the present, with recognisably realistic characters, and the central character’s predicament must be familiar to a lot of people. However I may be wrong in thinking this: authors never really know their own books.

I have a lot riding on this book: it was the first one I wrote, and the foundation for much of what went into City. Individuals who’ve read it and come up to me to talk about it have had very nice and perceptive things to say, but the problem is, not enough people are hearing about it.

It may simply be that the mainstream press is not interested. In which case I appeal to you, dear readers, to help me out. If you’ve read the book, please blog about it, post on Facebook or Twitter and tell your friends. Good, bad, like, don’t like, I don’t care, so long as you have something to say. You can tell me about it, or just send me a link to your post. I’d love to hear from you.

I’m trying to arrange for a launch (or relaunch) in March. More on that as it develops.

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The Doggie Saga Continued

Trying to get Putli to pose with a treat

Trying to get Putli to pose with a treat. You can see her belly is pink.

We’ve now done more research and also consulted the vet about the ongoing grrrrr saga. It’s no accident that Putli started getting antsy during and after her heat. For one thing, hormonal changes were making her crazy. The first week she was miserable. (By the way, lower back massage works on dogs too.) The second week she was skittish. While out on walks she would bat Babulal with her forepaws and incite him to play, resulting in the two of them running in ever decreasing circles round their human. Occasionally she went for him without provocation, resulting in a nasty bite on the side of his face which he promptly made worse by scratching. The third week she was moody and withdrawn.The skin on her stomach was puffy and red as well. I tried putting antifungal lotion on it and that helped a little, but the problem persisted.

She seemed to perk up after day 21, when the heat is officially over, but a few days later the mood swings were back. She became slightly schizo, playing with Babulal one moment, then ‘freezing’ on him the next, or even growling, which would cause him to hysterically attack her (and anything else near his mouth: curtains, beanbags, shoes, people). He has ripped great holes in our beanbags many times and they are now covered with darns as I can’t afford new ones.

Babulal before he loses it

Babulal before he loses it

I got Putli a cage thinking she’d improve if she had somewhere to hide away, but she wouldn’t even look at it. Then Babulal got jealous of the cage, so I got him one. The Babulal cage has helped in that now when she growls or freezes you can get Babulal to beat a strategic retreat into it and shut the door. This gives you time to whisk Putli up and take her to another room. Of course they continue to growl and make fearsome noises, but at least they can’t do any damage. Although to be fair, the previous fights sounded and looked a lot worse than they actually were.

The vet was visited on Friday. He said she had a false pregnancy and a tinea infection on her stomach caused by leaking milk. In dogs, the corpus luteum persists for the whole two months of gestation so it’s immaterial whether conception has actually occurred or not: the symptoms of pregnancy are caused by the hormones from the corpus luteum, not the embryos. He gave her a course of hormones to dry up her milk, and medicines for the tinea.Being on heat automatically raises a bitch’s status in the pack and when she is on heat and also in the luteal phase dogs who would otherwise ignore or bully her start treating her with respect. Since Babulal has been neutered he probably doesn’t get it, adding to Putli’s frustration at his general bad manners which we heartily share.



Some improvement has occurred since the medication started, but they still fight on an average twice a day. The viciousness has gone down though, so if you handle it right you can separate them without either touching the other. Hormones are slow acting so I guess a minimum of five days must pass before normalcy returns. Of course Babulal doesn’t make it any better by being a goofball.

Part of it of course is that Putli figures that she’s all grown up now and wants to make a bid for leadership. She is smart enough to figure that she can’t take on the humans, so the only possible target is the Babulal. She astutely plays on his insecurities and also takes advantage of the fact that he’s unwilling or unable to make an impression on her skin. Since he’s quite capable of puncturing both beanbags and humans, this is either due to her thick fur or his self control, a category hitherto regarded as null.

The Putul

The Putul

When she’s in the mood she stalks him quite obviously. She must have spaniel blood as she often ‘points’ at small animals like rats or birds when she’s out on her walks (freezes with nose extended and a forepaw raised). Recently she has been ‘pointing’ at Babulal. The first few times he didn’t get it so she proceeded to growling. Now she has him trained such that she only has to stand motionless with a forepaw raised and he starts yelling, frothing and biting things. If his cage is nearby he now goes into it, whereupon we spring to latch the door.

I have a feeling, however, that this is a bit of a show for the humans, because I don’t think they do it when they’re alone. Although they have started fights when we were in another room, they always seem quite subdued and sensible when we come back from somewhere. It probably helps that we don’t leave food out for them when we’re not around, and these days we also put away all the toys.We also shut Putli’s cage since she won’t go in there but probably minds Babulal taking it over, as he will if given the chance. If I and Putli are sitting beside it he comes and creeps inside like a shady realtor taking possession of an illegal block of flats. Followed by Putli doing the canine equivalent of calling in the para dadas.

The Babulal house

The Babulal house

Fights nearly always centre around a resource, whether its food or attention or beanbags or toys. I would like to be able to give them chewies, but right now it would be like tossing lighted sticks of dynamite down a saltpetre mine. The only chewie around is the bone tied inside Babulal’s cage for him to take out his frustrations when he’s banged up in clink.

I should mention, however, that we never force him to go in, and we always let him out as soon as Putli is locked up somewhere to cool off. Dogs should never be put in their cages as punishment: the cage should be a safe refuge, a fun place where they go to be alone. Otherwise you haven’t a hope in hell of training him to go there when you want him to. They’re both coming to crate training rather late, so we have to go slowly and gently.

When he’s locked in there we drop a few treats through the roof. For extra security we’ve covered it with an old bedsheet (previously torn by the B himself) as this seems to help him with his loudspeaker-and-crackers problems. When it gets hot (soon) we’re going to have to take the cover off, but I’m hoping he will be cool with it by then.

The cage we've got for Putli, which she hates.

The cage we got for Putli, which she hates. Notice the door in the roof.

The vet says I ought to spay Putli (I dread the prospect of having to go through this twice every year, otherwise.) I was hoping to be able to do this in May when classes end, but the vet says that will be too late and recommends March. The best time to spay a dog is when their systems are least active, ie in the resting phase between cycles. I will have to crate-train her before that (which means getting a new cage) so that I can keep her protected while she’s healing.

The cage I have for her right now was given to me by a friend, but it’s actually a puppy cage with a door in the roof for putting little puppies to bed. Putli feels insecure in it because it opens to the side and leaves her vulnerable. She needs a cage like Babulal’s with an opening at one end. If anyone has a suitable cage I’m willing to swop. Or I’m willing to sell Putli’s cage for 3k and buy a new one with the money. The price for that size and make of cage when new is 4k. Any takers?

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Ujaan: Festival for the Sunderbans is happening for three days, 11-13 March at Fraserganj and Bakkhali. I probably can’t make it because of the dogs, but you should if you can. It’s going to be a blast. All proceeds go to help the people and ecosystem of the Sunderbans. Lots of cool acts will be there.

Can’t find the latest poster though. Will upload it if I can find it.

Ujaan ad for volunteers

Ujaan ad for volunteers

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CEO of Dogs R Us

Babulal is in the house

Babulal is in the house

So I promised I would post more on the dominance thing.

As we have been forced to realise, if you have two dogs, you can’t afford to half-train them. It’s all or nothing, because if you don’t train them, they’re going to be at each other’s throats. In fact, it was the tension that was developing between Babulal and Putlibai as Putlibai grew up that caused me to go online and research dog behaviour.

A lot of the things I read about new research into how dogs think made perfect sense. Many of the things Babulal does that had us foxed suddenly swam into focus. If you grasped that he was thinking like a dog, and not a human, then his motivation was perfectly clear. To explain what I mean, let me first explain the idea of the ‘alpha’ who leads the pack.

Pack behaviour originated in wolf societies, and imperfect remnants of it still exist in dogs. Having a pack with a well defined hierarchy is an efficient way of managing a society, since everyone knows their place and resources and duties are allocated quickly and without debate. The leaders of the wolf hierarchy, the alpha male and alpha female, have both privileges and duties. They lead the hunt and provide for the pack, they are the only ones who breed, and they get to eat first or share any resource first. They are greeted before they greet, and have a personal space that others are not allowed to invade. However, the danger of a hierarchy is that it is liable to be destabilised if the leader is removed, hence on certain occasions it must be recalculated. The importance of this will be explained in a moment.

Popular belief sees the alpha as a fierce, mean creature whom nobody crosses, who enforces their rule with their teeth. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact an alpha fights less than other dogs: the lower down on the rungs you are, the more you have to face bullying from the higher dogs. The alphas are more like CEOs: they decide the objectives of the pack, where the den will be, what creature will be hunted and who gets what from the results, whether to move, and who if any shall be driven out. They are the first to face danger or pioneer unknown spaces at whatever personal risk. It is that last point that was crucial to our understanding of Babulal.

Now all dogs, in default of signs to the contrary, assume that they are alphas. This is because a pack without an alpha is doomed, so if a dog sees no one is doing the job of alpha, he takes it upon himself. Dogs continually test their surroundings against a checklist in their heads whereby they determine whether they are alpha or not. The checklist is as follows:

  1. Who controls the food, eats first from it, then decides who gets what?
  2. When the pack is reunited after a separation (someone goes out, or even to the next room for a couple of hours) who greets whom, and who ignores whom?
  3. When there is danger or the unknown, who goes first to meet it?

If the answer to all of these questions is one name, then that one is the alpha, and peace and calm reign in the pack. However, if the dog’s own name is the answer to any one question, then it gets confused. Confusion in a doggie brain breeds insecurity and fear, especially if the challenges to the pack are beyond the dog’s capabilities to handle. He just can’t do the job of alpha, but no one is relieving him of the job, so he soldiers on regardless, getting more and more psycho as he fails to measure up.



The mistake we made with Babulal was that while we were very clear on point 1 (we control the food and dish it out) we weren’t doing well on 2 and 3. Since when he was a puppy, I would always stir his food with my bare hands so he’d know by my smell that I had given it to him, and he always had to sit and watch while his bowl was put down. Same for Putli when she came. Interestingly, after she went on heat she became very unreliable in sitting for meals.

However, we were not so good on points 2 and 3: we would pat him on demand, or without demand, and we would let him barge ahead of us through doors. What we should have done is ignore his attempts at getting our attention whenever we came home till he stopped jumping and yelping, then for five minutes of silence thenceforth, after which we should have called him, made him sit and patted him.

This is because alphas do not greet, they are greeted, and if you pat your dog when he asks for it, or (even worse) before he asks for it, you are placing yourself below him in the hierarchy, and also missing an opportunity to make him work for his pats. Dogs test the hierarchy after a reunion by effusive greeting: when a pack reunites after a hunt, the alpha may well be killed or injured, and the pack always has to recalculate its positions. This is different from how apes do things, which is why we don’t get it. Also dogs should never get anything without working for it: Nothing in Life is Free, or NILIF, as a principle of training. It’s a pretty good pirnciple for human relations too.

The second thing we did wrong is we often let him barge through doors ahead of us, or run ahead if he saw something, a cat or a bird. This gave him the idea that he is allowed to be first to meet danger. This is probably the root of Babulal’s excessive fear of other dogs, which sometimes shows as fear aggression. Since we started de-alphaing him, he shows less aggression and more simple fear.

Babulal’s alpha confusion primarily manifested in his bizarre habit of nicking stuff that belonged to us: slippers, car keys, mp3 players, used underwear, and ostentatiously chewing it under our noses. We wrongly dealt with this by yelling at him and forcibly taking the things away. This only made him do it more, because we hadn’t addressed the underlying cause: the fact that as alpha, he saw the things as his, not ours. Yelling and screaming is a very non-alpha behaviour.

What we should have done is calmly offered him a treat, while not actually allowing him to have it. He can’t eat the treat and chew stolen goods at the same time, so he’d have to drop it. As he drops it, we say the command (in this case Dao) and reward him once he’s dropped it. That would be the start of dealing with the behaviour. In most dog training systems, one starts with the end of the behaviour one wants and works backwards to the beginning. In this case, we want him not to take our stuff at all. Since he does take our stuff at present, the first thing he has to get into his doggie brain is: if you take stuff, you can get a treat for it (as opposed to getting yelled at) IF YOU GIVE IT BACK. Preferably unchewed.

Properly internalised, this should have him actually doing something potentially useful (picking up your stuff and giving it back on command) instead of the annoying things he used to do before. It helps if you teach the dog to play fetch (Babulal knows and enjoys that game) because the dog does have a positive association with giving you SOME things. Babulal now gives things back on command about 80 percent of the time if you have a treat nearby. His rate of success goes down without the treat, but we have made a start in undoing all the bad training we’ve given him!

Since December we have been systematically de-alphaing him. At first it was hard, because it looks like you’re being mean to your dog, but in the long run it will do him a world of good. He’s already more relaxed and more manageable.

This is how it goes (and you can find a better account of it in Jan Fennell’s The Dog Listener.)

How to de-alpha a confused dog

For the first 48 hours, ignore your dog. Feed him without looking at him, don’t talk to him, don’t pet him, take him out without even saying ‘heel’. The dog will probably behave really badly, jumping up and down extra hard to get your attention, because bad behaviour has always been yelled at, if nothing else. Expect really crazy behaviour, like tearing around the house or howling. Ignore everything like a zen monk.

Eventually your dog will give up. He will then sleep a particularly deep and relaxed sleep. This is a very good sign. When he wakes up, call him to you. If he comes, give him a treat and pat him (but don’t overdo it). If he doesn’t, continue to ignore him for an hour before trying again. Keep this up until you get a reliable name response nearly every time. This is going to be the foundation of obedience.

Before you feed the dog, put his bowl on a table and keep some human food on a plate next to it. Everyone in the house should eat something form the plate before you give the dog his food. It can be just a biscuit: dogs understand the symbolism. When I tried it with Babulal, even though he has never been pushy about food, you could tell by his face that he understood what was going down. He paid extra attention to my every move. You know you’re on to something when you get that look: it means you’re speaking dog.

For some dogs, this routine of ignoring for five minutes when greeting and fake-eating from his bowl may have to continue lifelong in order to prevent obstreperous alphaism. For others, they catch on and modify their behaviour pretty quickly. Babulal is stubborn about some things but accommodating about others.

Always go through doors and into new areas first. Keep your dog on a leash and hold him back before you go through. Even better, teach a reliable sit-stay. Make the dog sit a few feet away before you open the door. If the dog gets up before you go through the door, shut it and set him down again. Repeat ad infinitum till he gets it. It’s worth doing this forty, fifty times in one go (so do this when you have time in hand) because if you stop the dog twenty times for getting up early, then let him through the twentyfirst time because you’re bored, then he’ll learn that if he just keeps doing his bad behaviour long enough, he’ll eventually get what he wants. So if he fails to get it before your patience runs out, cancel walkies. if you walk away and pretend you’re not taking him, he’ll probably eventually come round. The important thing to remember is that you are the source of all awesomeness in your dog’s life, and he better believe it. if he doesn’t do what he must to please you, no yummy.

It’s best, of course, to bring your puppy up right so you don’t face these problems. Prevention is way better than cure. Also, it’s important to remember that it’s far easier to replace a bad behaviour with a good one than to knock a bad behaviour out of the window. Dogs don’t understand NOT doing something. If your dog jumps, teach him to sit instead: he can’t jump while sitting, can he?

More on this later.

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Srijan Poetry Fest

Posting this for Srijan. Please come if you can.

Srijan Youth Poetry Fest

Srijan Youth Poetry Fest. Click to view large size

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4 February 2011

Pace around the bed

Pace around the bed

Pace around the bed

And once more pace around the bed

Shut the door tight

Can the air

Go up and down the stair

Wake every hour on the hour

Listen to the night

Taste the sour

Prolegomena of death

Struggle for breath

Like a machine

Fight the voices in your head

Keep your lungs clean

Find the remote

Worry about the scar around your heart

Do no harm

Make a bit of art

Like the thickening

Veins looking out of your arm

Open your throat

Struggle for breath

Don’t go yet

The sky is lightening

Struggle for breath

Don’t forget

Somewhere out there, life is happening.

While I’m in here battling death

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Raksha Bharadia Launch Today

I’m launching Raksha Bharadia’s book All and Nothing today at 6.30pm at Crossword Elgin Road.

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